Is Herman Cain racist against African-Americans?

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain caused a firestorm last week for saying that African-American voters had been “brainwashed” into unfairly dismissing conservative views. Democratic political strategist Cornell Belcher, also an African-American, promptly blasted Cain’s remarks as “racist” but said that the incident was a “teachable moment.” I agree that the incident was a “teachable moment,” but my lesson plan would be vastly different from Belcher’s.

Here’s what Cain said: “African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open minded, not even considering a conservative point of view. I have received some of that same vitriol simply because I am running for the Republican nomination as a conservative. So it’s just brainwashing and people not being open minded, pure and simple.” Cain made his remarks to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

Belcher, appearing on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360°, pounced on Cain’s statement. “You know, if I came on your show, Anderson, and I said, all Jewish people are brainwashed, I probably wouldn’t be invited back to CNN and I assure you the condemnation would be swift and it’d be powerful and be strong,” said Belcher. “What Herman Cain said was a racist, bigoted statement and it should be treated like a racist and bigoted person who makes those racist and bigoted statements.” (For the record, Cain never claimed that “all” African-Americans are brainwashed.)

My friend Fred Radewagen posted the video of Belcher’s remarks on Facebook and quipped: “Finally, a liberal who concedes that it is possible for African-Americans to be racist.”

Belcher made a point of repeating that no one could get away with calling Jews brainwashed. (Why, because the Jews control the media?) But Belcher missed an obvious point. True, it probably would not have gone over well had Belcher declared that all Jews were brainwashed. But Belcher isn’t Jewish. Criticism of one’s own community is generally not presumed to be motivated by racism or bigotry.

I happen to be Jewish (and also half Samoan, which makes me as Jewish as President Obama is black). If I were to hear a Jewish pundit declare that Jews were “brainwashed” into voting Republican in Anthony Weiner’s old district, I wouldn’t accuse the pundit of anti-Semitism or call for his banishment from CNN. I would accuse the pundit of stupidity, and accept the challenge to join a passionate debate within the Jewish community.

I’ll further confound Belcher with the following: I believe that the many Jews who are completely closed-minded to conservative views — particularly on fiscal and economic issues — are brainwashed. They’re not literally brainwashed, of course. Like Cain, I’m using the term as a figure of speech to explain the stubborn closed-mindedness of some in my community. And I can assure you, I’m quite proud of my Jewish heritage.

Michael Nutter, the African-American mayor of Philadelphia, conjured some of the worst stereotypes of African-American youth in a recent speech before his congregation: “If you walk into somebody’s office with your hair uncombed and a pick in the back, and your shoes untied, and your pants half down, tattoos up and down your arms and on your neck, and you wonder why somebody won’t hire you? They don’t hire you ’cause you look like you’re crazy!”

Nutter’s speech was reminiscent of remarks made by fellow Philadelphian Bill Cosby in 2004. Referring to inner-city African-Americans, Cosby said: “They’re standing on the corner and they can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t,’ ‘Where you is.’ … And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk. … Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. … You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!”

While some criticized Nutter and Cosby for “airing dirty laundry in public,” the criticism was substantially outweighed in the African-American community by praise for their candor. Neither was vilified as a racist, and most people recognized the prerogative of both men to offer scathing critiques of their own community.

Why is Herman Cain not given a similar pass? Does Belcher think that Cain is not “really black” and hence ineligible for the license Nutter and Cosby were granted to chastise blacks? Does Cain forfeit his blackness by failing to espouse the liberal agenda — even though he sincerely believes (as I do) that the liberal agenda, despite good intentions, has on balance been a disaster for the African-American community?

Whatever one thinks of the merits of liberal policies, blacks have clearly marginalized themselves by their overwhelming loyalty to the Democratic Party. We’ve all heard of those “swing voters” who are courted so intensely by both parties. African-Americans are, by and large, the opposite of swing voters.

Back when I was still a liberal, I read an excellent book called Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? The author was Thomas Sowell, the African-American conservative economist. Like most people, I had been “brainwashed” to believe that all black conservatives were white wannabe Uncle Toms who were ashamed of their race. Sowell confounded my expectations: His book was brimming with resentment that affirmative action had robbed blacks of credit for the impressive economic progress that they had started to make — and would have continued to make — without the assistance of racial preferences. It struck me that Sowell had far more “black pride” than most of the black politicians who pushed the civil rights agenda. Regardless of whether one agrees with Sowell’s conclusions in his meticulously documented book, his pride comes through loud and clear.

I see a similar pride in Herman Cain, who was born and raised in the segregated South and rose to the highest ranks of corporate America. The son of a chauffeur and a cleaning woman, Cain charted a remarkable record of achievement in several tough fields: Missile ballistics expert for the U.S. Navy. Spectacularly successful businessman. Head of a major national trade organization. Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

In just three years, Cain transformed Burger King’s 400-store Philadelphia region from the company’s least profitable to its most profitable. Pillsbury assigned Cain to lead its money-losing Godfather’s Pizza chain, and he made it profitable. Cain achieved these results not because he was a smooth talker, or because he was a good politician, or because he got people to like him, or because of the color of his skin. Cain’s success was measured by actual numbers under the harsh, objective and colorblind standards of the free market. In what alternative universe could this man not be revered as a role model?

Yet Cain complains that many African-Americans dismiss his ideas because he’s conservative. That’s a shame, because a man of Cain’s background would certainly have much wisdom to contribute to a community plagued by almost 17 percent unemployment (and for youth, an astounding 46.5 percent). Still, I respect the prerogative of African-Americans to embrace or reject Cain as they choose.

I have much less patience for presumptuous and condescending white liberals who imply that blacks are somehow not allowed to have conservative beliefs. Herman Cain refused to allow the color of his skin to restrict what he was allowed to achieve. Why, then, should the color of his skin restrict what he is allowed to believe? And who the hell is Janeane Garofalo or Bill Maher to tell him otherwise?

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosts the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.